Image: Sandbagging in Fargo
Michael Vosburg  /  The Forum via AP
Karry Hoganson lays sandbags behind his home in Fargo, N.D., on Monday. His neighbor's home was demolished earlier this month to make way for a clay dike next to his home.
msnbc.com news services
updated 3/15/2010 1:09:41 PM ET 2010-03-15T17:09:41

Melting snow will cause major flooding along the Red River in North Dakota and Minnesota by midday on Tuesday with water levels just below the record set in 2009 during one of the worst floods in the state's history, the National Weather Service said on Monday.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said the city had expected flooding — and prepared by sandbagging over the last two weeks — but not so soon. "The emphasis has changed dramatically," he said Monday.

As a result, police are now escorting truck convoys carrying sandbags into the lowest areas of Fargo. Across the river in Moorhead, Minn., the city also prepared to deploy sandbags.

Fargo city and county officials held an emergency meeting Monday after the National Weather Service bumped up its flood crest forecast because of warm weather and rain.

Record mild temperatures plus recent rain have increased flood concerns in the valley. The high water is occurring a few weeks earlier than the flooding in 2009.

Last year, about 100 homes in the area were damaged and thousands of people were evacuated after the Red River rose above the flood stage for a record 61 days and crested twice.

Officials say they are better prepared this year for flooding thanks to earlier sandbagging efforts and the building of stronger levees across the region.

Million-plus sandbags
Miles of clay levees, more than 1 million sandbags and portable wall systems will be used to help protect an area of about 200,000 people in Cass County, N.D., and Clay County, Minn.

Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist said a handful of residents outside the city left their houses mainly because they don't want to be stranded by overland flooding.

"Everybody has to understand that this is for real," Walaker said.

Fargo has mapped out a plan to deliver sandbags over the next three days, starting with the most vulnerable neighborhoods. Sandbagging is expected to kick into high gear on Tuesday, when high school and junior high students will be excused from school to chip in with the flood preparation efforts. The city also asked for 200 National Guard members for help.

"We have 27,000 pieces of property in the city of Fargo alone and they are all vulnerable," Walaker said. "We really need volunteers. We really need protection."

Walaker said he's confident the city could handle a crest of 38 feet this year, which is expected to happen on Saturday. Last year, the river crested on March 28 at a record 40.84 feet, nearly 23 feet above flood stage.

"Hopefully on Saturday it's time for the champagne and lighting the cigars," he said. "But it's not the time today."

Mild temps, rain 'sped things up'
Unprecedented mild temperatures that melted snow and persistent rainfall so far this year led to an accelerated flood crest forecast, weather officials said. The crest had been expected later this month or early April.

The Red River had risen to 24.72 feet at mid-morning on Monday in Fargo, the state's biggest city in the Red River Valley, leaving it just shy of the moderate flood stage, said Greg Gust, warning co-ordination meteorologist for the Weather Service.

It should reach the major flood stage of 30 feet on Tuesday and crest at 37 to 39 feet by the weekend. Temperatures will remain above-freezing until Thursday, Gust said.

"You throw mild temperatures and rain into the snow pack and that combination has sped things up tremendously," Gust said.

Last week was the earliest on record that the minimum temperature averaged above freezing at Fargo, Gust said. Parts of the state also received 1.5 inches of rain last week.

The river flows north into the Canadian province of Manitoba, which has also had an earlier-than-normal melt.

Dr. Andrew McLean, medical director of North Dakota's Department of Human Services, said the prospect of back-to-back annual flooding has been difficult for some residents.

"People are still tired from last year," McLean said. "The good news right now is we have a shortened time frame. That's actually a good thing. People do step up."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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